In the Meantime…*
Grace United Methodist Church
May 16, 2010
Acts 1: 1-11 (NRSV)
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
If you have ever driven on Interstate 95 between South Carolina and North Carolina you are most likely familiar with a strange and funny kind of place named, “South of the Border.” And about 80 or 90 miles before you get there, billboard signs begin popping up—many of them quite entertaining to read—letting you know that you are getting somewhat close. One such billboard that has always stuck with me appears about 10 miles out. It reads, “Keep on crying kids, you’re almost there!!!” And we all know what that sign is getting at! “Are we almost there yet?” Any person who has been on a trip in a car with small children knows this question well, and the tone of voice kids use when they ask it, over and over and over again. Sometimes the child is so eager or so bored that the question gets asked before you have even gotten out of your neighborhood. And, of course, the answer depends on what you mean by “almost.” If I drive home from my sister’s house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I could reasonably say that I was “almost there” when I’ve gotten within an hour or 45 minutes of Soddy Daisy. But if I’m driving home from downtown Chattanooga, I would only say I was “almost there” when I was a minute or two away. It’s all relative.
For ages, the Jewish people had been asking just such a question, and the disciples repeat it here before Jesus. I imagine Jesus may have had similar feelings when faced with the eager questioning of the apostles: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” Its like, “Are we almost there yet? Is this the time? Is Israel going to be restored at last?” You see, the disciples thought they were involved in some kind of Jewish renewal movement that would finally bring about the promised restoration of Israel. But they were only thinking of Jesus’ promised kingdom in an ordinary, earthly sense, and they were hoping for top jobs in his government. Jesus, with his healing power and revolutionary teaching would rule in Jerusalem, and restore Israel. And when that happened, the whole world would be turned around at last. Israel would be the top nation, the reigning Superpower—ruling over the rest of the world! All this can be summed up in the phrase, “restore the kingdom to Israel.” That’s what the apostles were hoping for, and so their question was natural—“Are we almost there yet?”
In many ways, this question has been asked by Christians down through the centuries over and over again. And what Jesus has been telling the disciples all along and even now is that we are, in a sense, “almost there”; but, of course, this is all relative. And when it comes to arriving at a specific destination at a specific time, Jesus basically tells the disciples that they simply aren’t ever going to have a complete sense of where they are on the interstate. They aren’t supposed to. But what Jesus does go on to say is, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
We will be Jesus’ witnesses? What does that mean? In the world of the first century, when someone was enthroned as king, that new kingdom didn’t really have a whole lot of power until everyone knew about it. So, there were witnesses or heralds who would go off throughout the territory with the news, “We have a king!” whether that king was Claudius, or Nero, or whoever. And that is what Jesus was telling the disciples they must do once they receive the power of the Holy Spirit. “You’re asking about the kingdom? You’re asking when it will come about? Well, in one sense it has already happened,” Jesus is saying, “because in my own death and Resurrection I have already been exalted as King, but not just as the King of Israel, in the way you think of it. I AM the King of heaven and all of earth. And you are to go out and tell the world about this!” Christ basically tells the apostles they need to stop worrying about the future and start living in the present! And though we live in the “in-between” time, there will come a time when the whole world is visibly and clearly living under God’s rule and there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and we must live our lives in visible anticipation of that great day! Rather than trying to restore the past, we have to think about transforming the present!
That is what the two angels meant when they said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven. Quit gawking and standing around, and get going! You heard Christ. There is much work to be done between now and then. You are to be witnesses from here to the ends of the earth!”
Just think about the Lord’s Prayer. Each week, and perhaps each day, we pray: “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Well, the second part of that sentence is a definition of the first part. We are to seek to have a situation upon this earth where God’s will is as perfectly done as it is in heaven. So we pray, and so we must also put our prayers into action! But how can we do that without the power of God? We can’t. People need the Holy Spirit! The disciples could do nothing, nor understand much without the power of the Holy Spirit! Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you…” The word used here for “power” is dynamis from which we get the word “dynamite.” And as we will see in more detail next Sunday, which is Pentecost Sunday, when the apostles did receive this power they were so filled with the Spirit, they couldn’t contain it, and Christianity spread like a rushing flood of water throughout the world. And the Good News is that this same power that was given to the disciples and early Christians is available to us as well!
When we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our hearts and minds; this is God living inside of us. The whole New Testament bears witness to this incredible truth! And you are given incredible power! Power to be transformed, power to love as God loves, power to face your fears unafraid, power to live—really live, and power to announce to the world, “We have a King and a Savior!” Is the power of the Holy Spirit surging inside us? Or could it be that even though we are Christians we have never known the power that Jesus promised? Or maybe we have a faint memory of that power but haven’t experienced it in quite some time.
How many of us have ever been to Niagara Falls? It’s amazing—the rush and roar of the water—the raw power of it! But if you go to Niagara Falls in the middle of the winter, much of that water is frozen. Big lightning-shaped forms of water are at a standstill. There’s little movement, little action; not much power. Can any of us relate to the image of frozen power? Maybe you feel that in your life now. Perhaps you once witnessed to others about Christ with such energy and excitement, but somewhere down the road you were disheartened. Perhaps the cares of this world drowned out your passion. Perhaps there was a tragedy in your life, or an event that got you off track, and you have never been the same since. Perhaps you have become discouraged. And you are frozen and powerless, and there seems to be nothing encouraging you, motivating you, or inspiring you. The Good News is that you don’t need to feel powerless any longer! For the most powerful force is available to us and all we need to do is refocus, and become part of the prayer, “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
We are surrounded by a world which has gone awry. Just in the neighborhoods which surround this meeting place, kids are on drugs. Men and women are living lives devoid of love, hope, and meaning. Persons are hurting one another. There is anger and fear in the air. There is a meanness stalking about, an evil, devouring our souls. And these are the souls of people who live next door to us, work with us, shop beside us, go to school with us or our children. The world is filled with tears, and the only answer; the only cure is Christ!
Are we ready to stop gawking and do what Christ has called us to do? Are we ready to get really, really serious about Christianity? Are we ready to put our words and prayers into action? Are we ready to tell those in the dark kingdom that there is a true King and all they need do is recognize him as Savior and Lord? “How can I do this?” we might ask. “What can I contribute?” Well, it’s not about us; it’s about allowing God to shine through us. It’s about allowing the power of God to burst forth from us! The Holy Spirit does the work. We are simply those through whom the Holy Spirit works; but we must be willing; we must be intentional.
A woman involved in a weekly Bible study made a life-changing discovery, by accident, in her basement. One day, she noticed that some potatoes had sprouted in the darkest corner of the room. At first, she could not figure out how they had received any light to grow. Then she noticed that she had hung a copper kettle from a rafter near the cellar window. She kept the kettle so brightly polished that it reflected the rays of the sun onto the potatoes. She later said, “When I saw that reflection, I thought, I may not be a preacher or a teacher, but I can be a copper kettle Christian. I can catch the rays of the Son of God and reflect his light to someone who finds themselves in a dark corner of life.” And isn’t this what we are all called to do?
We are to witness to the whole world the presence, love, and saving message of the Lord Jesus Christ by allowing the Power of the Holy Spirit to shine forth – molding us, strengthening us, encouraging us, teaching us, inspiring us, and thus bringing others to a saving knowledge of the Truth! This happens when we help with the Children’s Sunday School class, come out to the Discipleship Team meetings, take part in the mission activities of the church where we reach out to the lost and broken world. And when we do this, like the child who stops asking the question because suddenly the journey itself has become so interesting, we will find there is so much to see and to do, where we are, that we won’t worry so much about the “when.”
Jesus is already enthroned as the True King. Jesus is both Savior and Lord! He died, and behold he is alive forever more. And one day, God’s kingdom will come fully and finally. In the meantime, we have a great big, exciting job to do! There is nothing more important in all the earth! Praise God. Amen.
*Many thanks to Ken Sauer, East Ridge UMC, for sharing his sermon, Keep Cryin’ Kids, You’re Almost There, much of which is repeated here.